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Data centre sustainability begins at the design phase

Data centre sustainability begins at the design phase

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As organisations, particularly in the data centre sector, strive to meet their net zero goals, sustainability initiatives are crucial to implement into the design phase of a data centre. Niall Killeen, Global Director, Building Commissioning, CAI, discusses why this is so important and says that it is ultimately the responsibility of data centre designers to continue innovating more sustainable approaches.

The data centre industry has experienced significant growth over the last two years – estimated to reach over US$288 billion by 2027 – as many companies faced a sudden and urgent need for greater cloud technology to continue business operations remotely. This trend has continued due to, in large part, the acceleration of cloud migration and other various factors. As a result, the demand for data centres has continued to grow as major data-producing platforms spread their data centre footprints throughout the world. But as digital footprints grow, so do carbon footprints. As the world continues to become more and more reliant on data centre services, sustainability considerations should always be at the forefront for designers and operators. 

There have been significant strides in the progress and development of more efficient and sustainable data centres. Data centre owners and operators are stepping up their efforts to reduce energy consumption with many large companies – such as Amazon, Meta, Google, Equinix and Microsoft – integrating more sustainable features and capabilities into their facilities.

Data centres have been designed to operate more efficiently over time, taking a more comprehensive approach to measuring factors such as Power Usage Effectiveness (PUE). However, there is still great progress to be made to maintain a sustainable industry and keep up with ever-changing environmentally responsible demands. Data centres are designed at a point in time; however, construction can take several years from site selection to achieving operational status. Some designs are deemed appropriate to support resilience and redundancy requirements without taking current sustainability objectives into account. Existing operational facilities can be uneconomical to modify to support current environmental aspirations. Owners and operators need to design-in sustainability objectives for their data centre while also ensuring the as-built and as-operated facility delivers on those objectives now and in the future. There are various factors to consider including space, power usage, cooling capabilities and building management. If managed intently, the long-term environmental benefits can be substantial.

Challenges as facilities age

As new capabilities and improvements arise to support more efficient operations, data centres built just a few years ago could now be considered ‘outdated’ from an operational standpoint as innovation continues to disrupt the industry. From expansion at the Edge and cloud diversification to improved energy efficiency and boosted sustainability, data centres are continuously being transformed. This means that older data centres require more attention and closer operational management. Data centre operators of older facilities should pay closer attention to improvements or changes that can be made following the design stage, years into the facility’s operational lifespan, if they want to continue operating at optimal efficiency.

At the very least, day-to-day operations should adhere to original design standards to ensure that the facility operates in the way it was intended to. If not, this can reduce the operational, and more specifically, sustainability capabilities of the facility. For example, less than 15% of carbon footprint control is in the design phase and the rest is controlled over the lifespan of the facility. There are various factors that contribute to this.

For instance, data centres are designed to support a certain volume of inputs and equipment, but operational requirements are often changed – sometimes without full assessment of all potential impacts. Typically for day-one operations, these facilities are partially racked out at best – and some may never reach their full design capable load based on business drivers and end-client needs. Therefore, it becomes the responsibility of facility operations staff to manually intervene deviating from optimal operational characteristics to match day-one realities. Temperatures, pressure profiles, fan speeds, etc. are all manipulated – however, these need to be constantly monitored as the load profile of the facility increases. Often automated control systems can have obscure hard-to-find settings placed in manual settings to suit a point-in-time need. But these settings may never get reverted to automatic operation. To maintain original design standards, design components are crucial, as are the operational guidelines. Operators should be aware of how smaller adjustments can make a compound impact over the lifespan of the data centre.  

Looking ahead: Building more sustainable data centres

It’s obvious that the infrastructure design of a data centre should be analysed to build a sustainable facility. Many facility designers will turn to the implementation of technologies that can help manage data loads more efficiently, such as AI. There are situations where controls can respond more rapidly and efficiently to support incremental spikes in energy use, where AI is more equipped to handle the changes than humans. Digital Twins are also becoming key to improve data centre efficiency by helping to centralise data from across different areas of concern into a shared environment. This creates efficiency gains in space and equipment utilisation that directly reduces energy consumption.

From an efficiency standpoint, geographical considerations should be considered when designing and building a sustainable data centre. Different locations offer specific benefits and there is not a one-size-fits-all design for data centres spread out across the world. For example, in Ireland, some facilities have harnessed the power of evaporative cooling as a more sustainable cooling method. Others have leveraged mechanical ventilation systems, made possible by the cooler and breezier environment that Ireland offers. The consistent lower temperatures help more efficiently and sustainably maintain environmental characteristics of the data centres and in return, produces a reduction in operational and energy costs. Various locations can require unique solutions and it is the responsibility of data centre designers to continue innovating more sustainable approaches.


The data centre industry has made significant progress towards building and maintaining more sustainable operational measures. To meet maximum sustainability goals and maintain those in the long term, these capabilities and parameters should be built into the design phase and maintained through day-to-day operations. Adhering to the original design standards to ensure that the facility operates in the way it was intended to, is crucial, and operators should be cognisant of adjustments and improvements they can make throughout the lifespan of the facility. As the data centre industry continues to experience rapid growth, adhering to sustainability best practices will be key to ensure the industry continues to support, not only the growing data usage demands, but environmental ones too.

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